The words ‘perfect storm’ have been oft-used to describe Liverpool’s title challenge of 2013/14, when Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge stayed gloriously fit while Manchester United and Chelsea floundered under new managers; Arsenal’s excuse has since been lost as easily as games against Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
The same phrase should really have been appropriated for Chelsea’s title win of 2014/15, when Jose Mourinho’s skeletal squad suffered no broken bones while United and Arsenal were frustratingly and predictably brittle. Mourinho could ask his 11 core players to toil for over 2000 Premier League minutes each; Arsenal and United could only boast six and seven sturdy players in that category. Fatigue eventually cost the Blues a shot at Champions League glory but the flagging pace-setters hung on in the Premier League thanks to the brilliance of Eden Hazard, the doggedness of his teammates and the defensive fragility of Manchester City.
To stretch that statistic even further, the champions had four outfield players who notched over 3000 minutes; the rest of the top four could only muster one: Per Mertesacker. While Chelsea’s first-choice XI largely stayed fit, their rivals tinkered, either through injury or the necessity to keep bigger squads happy. For Chelsea, fewer options brought more success. But what would have happened if Eden Hazard, Cesc Fabregas or Nemanja Matic had been missing for extended periods? Would a Chelsea side that had to rely extensively on Ramires (the first-choice back-up option in four positions) or John Obi Mikel (the underwhelming second choice in one) have won the title?
Two months after Chelsea deservedly won the league it is utterly pointless to talk of ‘what ifs’, but it seems incredibly and unusually naive of Mourinho to assume that they will have the same outrageous fortune with injuries for a second successive season. What is the likelihood that Hazard – a skillful player targeted by defenders, according to his manager – will start 38 bruising Premier League games again?
“How can I find a better midfield player than Matic?” asked Mourinho in May when ruling out major summer spending. While we have berated Arsene Wenger for refusing to upgrade his beloved first team, Mourinho leaves himself open to criticism for refusing to upgrade his fringe players. Matic would not be easily replaced, but Mourinho could certainly find a more dynamic back-up central midfielder than Mikel or a more explosive substitute wide player than Victor Moses, suddenly appreciated by his manager after failed experiments with Andre Schurrle, Mohamed Salah and Juan Cuadrado. When Mikel and Moses are likely to be the 14th and 15th names on your teamsheet after Ramires and the limping gamble that is Radamel Falcao, it seems absurd that you could be as short as 5/4 favourites for the title. Especially when your closest rivals have strengthened.
The bookies and the media appear to have been fooled into thinking that Chelsea’s ease in winning last season’s title should make them automatic favourites to retain that title, even though that feat has not been achieved for seven years. On that occasion, Sir Alex Ferguson could boast Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Louis Saha as attacking options but still upgraded, selling Saha and spending £30m on Dimitar Berbatov. Standing still was not an option.
Title winner Manuel Pellegrini was rightly derided for a lack of spending last summer, with the example of Roberto Mancini used as a battering blue stick. Will we be saying the same thing next summer about Mourinho? After claiming this week that there are “five teams for one title”, it’s frankly bizarre that he seems reluctant to purchase the insurance that could keep Chelsea ahead of the rest.